Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley damaged by fire


Investigators still don't know what sparked the fire at the restaurant, but they do know one little sprinkler at the front of the building saved the rest of the place from going up in flames.

"I'm pretty shaky right now, but I'm just glad no one was in the building," Waters said.

The acclaimed chef is finding the good in the fire that torched her award-winning restaurant. The fire only burned the dining area on the front porch.

Waters knows it could have been much worse, but she can't hold back the tears; thinking about this part of the restaurant that had been there since she founded the world-renowned destination more than 40 years ago.

"It's a very historic piece that has disappeared in the flames," Waters said.

The flames sparked beneath the porch in the early morning hours after workers had gone home for the night.

Berkeley firefighters don't know how it started yet, but do know one small sprinkler stopped it all from spreading. Waters says she didn't want the sprinklers originally, fearing they'd change the look of the restaurant, but her builder insisted.

"If anything goes wrong, it's going to save the porch," Waters said. "And it really did save the restaurant this time."

It's not the first fire at Chez Panisse. The last fire was 31 years and one day ago. Waters says that one started in the fireplace between the dining room and kitchen; memories that haunt her today.

"And it was right before my partner died, and it has a lot of a, a lot of emotional, just sadness," she said.

Insurance saved the restaurant then, and Waters is sure she will be fine this time. She will rebuild, and perhaps expand. Devoted diners look forward to that day.

"She'll rebuild, and it'll be as beautiful, because she's a woman who believes in excellence, and she believes in quality," Chez Panisse customer Leonard Pitt said. "And that place will come back it'll be as beautiful as it was before, if not even better."

Chez Panisse will be closed at least through the weekend. They've announced that they are cancelling all reservations through March 23.

Waters says she'd like to open the undamaged portion of the restaurant, the upstairs cafe, as soon as possible. The only problem is, that in order to do that, she has to figure out how to rebuild the downstairs hallway so people can get upstairs while the damaged porch goes under a much longer transformation.

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